Copy protection of books

David Pogue tried an interesting experiment where he allowed one of his books to be downloaded (in pdf) for free and without digital rights management.

When I wrote about my concerns a year ago, my readers took me to task. “For all you know,” went their counterargument, “the illegal copies are just advertising for you; people will download them, try them out, then go by the physical book. Either that, or they’re being downloaded by people who would not have bought your book anyway. Why don’t you try a controlled experiment and see?”

Well, it sounded like it could be a very costly experiment. But I agreed. My publisher, O’Reilly, decided to try an experiment, offering one of my Windows books for sale as an unprotected PDF file.

After a year, we could compare the results with the previous year’s sales.

The results? It was true. The thing was pirated to the skies. It’s all over the Web now, ridiculously easy to download without paying.

The crazy thing was, sales of the book did not fall. In fact, sales rose slightly during that year.

That’s not a perfect, all-variables-equal experiment, of course; any number of factors could explain the results. But for sure, it wasn’t the disaster I’d feared.

What is interesting is that this outcome is at least consistent with the possibility that people were not buying the information in Pogue’s books when they bought a copy but they were purchasing the delivery mechanism — that is, a paper book. This was a hypothesis I floated some time ago that information may actually be free and what people pay for is delivery. And before you start throwing counter-examples at me, this is just a hypothesis and like all such things is one I am positing is generally true rather than absolutely true.

One thought on “Copy protection of books”

  1. I like Kevin Kelly (of Wired)’s take on when consumers may be willing to pay for webstuff (i.e. information/knowledge) that would otherwise be free.


    Summarising, he proposes 8 distinct sources of generative value:

    Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment, Patronage, and Findability.

    Physical books (like vinyl records) have an embodiment (and permanency) element that digital lacks and which some consumers will value.  Also, some digital users may want to express patronage.

    I have used some of Kelly’s ideas to look at the resurrection of vinyl (see my blog).


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